A scale-free systems theory of motivation and addiction

R. Andrew Chambers, Warren K. Bickel, Marc N. Potenza

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

44 Scopus citations


Scale-free organizations, characterized by uneven distributions of linkages between nodal elements, describe the structure and function of many life-based complex systems developing under evolutionary pressures. We explore motivated behavior as a scale-free map toward a comprehensive translational theory of addiction. Motivational and behavioral repertoires are reframed as link and nodal element sets, respectively, comprising a scale-free structure. These sets are generated by semi-independent information-processing streams within cortical-striatal circuits that cooperatively provide decision-making and sequential processing functions necessary for traversing maps of motivational links connecting behavioral nodes. Dopamine modulation of cortical-striatal plasticity serves a central-hierarchical mechanism for survival-adaptive sculpting and development of motivational-behavioral repertoires by guiding a scale-free design. Drug-induced dopamine activity promotes drug taking as a highly connected behavioral hub at the expense of natural-adaptive motivational links and behavioral nodes. Conceptualizing addiction as pathological alteration of scale-free motivational-behavioral repertoires unifies neurobiological, neurocomputational and behavioral research while addressing addiction vulnerability in adolescence and psychiatric illness. This model may inform integrative research in defining more effective prevention and treatment strategies for addiction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1017-1045
Number of pages29
JournalNeuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews
Issue number7
StatePublished - Sep 5 2007


  • Addiction
  • Decision-making
  • Dopamine
  • Dorsal striatum
  • Habit formation
  • Motivation
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Scale-free
  • Ventral striatum

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Behavioral Neuroscience

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